Twelve cellists arranged in a graceful arc, led by Guy Johnston, gave the second of this year's Chamber Music Proms at the Cadogan Hall. Winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year back in 2000, Johnston has established a successful career as soloist, teacher, orchestral and chamber player. The gathered cellists are friends and colleagues from his wide-ranging exploits.

Golda Schultz © BBC | Sisi Burn
Golda Schultz
© BBC | Sisi Burn

The centrepiece of the programme was probably the most famous piece written for an all-cello line-up, Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras No. 5, for which the cellists were joined by South African soprano Golda Schultz. The opening “Ária” places a magical text about nightfall between an ethereal wordless “Cantilena”; Schultz’s warm tone blended with the cellos beautifully. The cellos didn’t quite match Schultz’s amazingly tender pianissimo in the reprise, which was a pity. In the “Dança” which followed, Schultz was in total command of the virtuosic demands of the birdsong and she communicated more directly with the audience here too. A spirited presence on stage, she was clearly delighted with the well-deserved appreciative applause, and enthusiastically embraced all twelve cellists before leaving the stage.

The proceedings began, however, with Edward Russell’s arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. The players took a little while to adjust the balance of the opening theme against the thickly textured accompaniment, but once settled in, the combined forces made an enthusiastically rustic sound for this enjoyable opener.

The programme also included arrangements by two of the assembled cellists, with Robin Michael’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Motet O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, BWV118. Michael’s arrangement makes good use of the full-range of the instruments, but there was not always consistent security among the players in the instruments' upper reaches, with some occasionally rather brittle sounds marring the otherwise smooth textures. The homogeneity of tone overall also meant that contrapuntal detail was occasionally blurred. However, this was an atmospheric and suitably prayerful take on Bach’s beautiful music.

Richard Birchall’s arrangement of three songs from Schubert’s Schwanengesang makes great use of the cello’s lyrical qualities, but he also uses the variety of textures the instrument can produce to great effect in the accompaniment to the song lines. “Ständchen” was particularly effective, with Johnston on the vocal line, with an answering line from two other cellists, over a light accompaniment. The middle section contained an inventive variation, with the opening turn motif of the melody picked up in the accompaniment.

Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations has been arranged for various instrumental and choral forces but not always successfully. However, Russell’s arrangement sticks close to the original, and as a result works well. The cellists showed great control with their pianissimo opening, and held back the slow build up admirably, although ultimately they kept such a tight rein that this remained a rather understated “Nimrod”, never quite reaching full power.

Guy Johnston and friends © BBC | Sisi Burn
Guy Johnston and friends
© BBC | Sisi Burn

Before the Villa-Lobos came a delightful showpiece by German composer Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann, Die 12 in Bossa-nova (Variações brasileiras), Op.36, written for the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kaiser-Lindemann uses every trick in the book, with jazzy pizzicato, drumming of hands and tapping of bows, harmonics and even a shout from the players. The cellists had great fun with this, and the final pizzicato flourish passed around the 12 players and back again was timed to perfection.

Another piece that’s been arranged for varied forces is Piazzolla’s ever-popular Libertango. In another successful arrangement from Russell, he contrasts pizzicato rhythms and insistent motion in the inner parts with the seductive melody lines, exploiting the sultry cello tone well. Occasionally ensemble rocked with the accompanying rhythms getting slightly ahead of the melodic line, but they performed with panache, and enjoyed the final glissando.

Julius Klengel (1859-1933) was principal cellist with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and wrote many studies and solo pieces for his instrument, still used by many cellists today. He composed his Hymnus for 12 cellos, Op.57 in memory of the Artúr Nikisch, conductor of the Gewandhaus until his death in 1922. It is an understandably sombre piece − perhaps not a programme finale choice, but still, the players gave a heartfelt and touching rendition of this prayerful hymn, bringing their varied programme to a subdued close. Their encore of Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” from the Carnival of the Animals arranged by Benjamin Hughes, however, lifted spirits appropriately, with Johnston sharing the melody with arranger Hughes and Emma Denton. Here, players produced a beautifully blended tone, and the pianissimo reprise of the melody at the end was highly sensitive.